“The racial categories included in the census questionnaire generally reflect a social definition of race recognized in this country and not an attempt to define race biologically, anthropologically, or genetically.”
— US Census
According to a widely circulated statistic, the police kill a young black man every twenty-eight hours in America. Without doubt, the police have a problem with race. Moreover, the justice system appears to have a problem, too, as proven by the Grand Jury’s failed indictment of Darren Wilson in the killing this summer of young Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The failed indictment does not mean that Wilson is innocent; only that he will not be brought to trial. This is a terrible perversion of the path to justice. It suggests deliberate prevention of trial on the nearly 100% certainty that Wilson would be found guilty if tried. I am disturbed, however, by the well-intentioned flagellants among the white, non-racist community virtually calling for “America’s” white male blood, metaphorically speaking. I am disturbed because this is the wrong response to the judicial outrage in Ferguson. We should be calling for ruling-class blood, not dividing ourselves into blacks and whites. Isn’t this division a benefit that our divide-and-rule oppressors hardly deserve? Let us not play with the cards in their deck.
To begin with, is “America” racist? Real, existing Americans voted for a black candidate for president, one, moreover, who ticked off only the “African American” category on race in the US Census of 2010. In choosing the less privileged racial group than white, Obama adhered to the principle of “hypo descent,” which the US has traditionally used to determine the race of a child born of a mixed-race union. We have a black political class in the Congress; a black Supreme Court justice; two blacks have been secretary of state (one a woman). We have not one institution in which blacks don’t figure more or less prominently. Mixed marriages have been legal since 1967. In 2008, about 14% of all first marriages were mixed race; 9% of whites, 16% of blacks, 26% of Hispanics, and 31% of Asians were interracially married.
Nonetheless, racism persists in the black communities, mainly among the poor. We know that black Americans suffer oppression and injustice at a rate far greater than that of any other group. According to the 2010 US Census, 38.2% of black children lived in poverty, the highest rate of any group. According to the Institute of Medicine in 2002, more than 4 million black Americans died prematurely between 1940 and 1999 because of health-care disparity and, at least in part, physicians’ prejudice. 26% of 34 million black Americans live below the poverty line. There seems to be something definitely racist about American institutions. Let us not even mention the appalling incarceration rates of black men. Thus, pointing to the white man in the street or in your bed as the culprit is a little myopic. Does he run the police, the courts, and the Pentagon? Racism is not an individual psychosis, specific to generic “white man.” Racism is the weapon of the powerful. They invented “race.” The psychotic history of that invention is inextricably tied to that of capitalism and imperialism.
The age of capital gave us “scientific racism.” This pseudo-science twins American racism to its European original. One of our founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, a naturalist, proposed, based on “observation,” that blacks slept more because their minds were empty. Indeed, the 18th century into which the US was born developed the discourse of race, mainly as a justification for colonial imperialism. Francois Bernier, French physician to Moghul Emperor Shah Jahan, is considered the first thinker since classical Greece to have classified people by race. Aristotle, of course, classified as “barbarians” those races, which lived outside the polis—the Greek city-state, organized around written laws. In 1684, Bernier published Nouvelle division de la terre par les différentes espèces ou races qui l’habitent (“New Division of the Earth according to Different Species or Races which Inhabit it”). The 18th century continued the discourse of “race,” as a scientific category. Botanist Carl Linnaeus color-coded people by races—red (H. sapiens americanus) , white (H. sapiens Europeans) , yellow (H. sapiens asiaticus), and black (H. Sapiens afer). According to Linnaeus, the European breed was the superior of the four.
The science expanded to become the propaganda for European and American imperialism. The alleged superiority of the European and the Euro-American was the result of no neutral science. As European imperialism took off in the 18th century and Euro-Americans “pacified” the native nations, science came up with all sorts of studies to prove that the looters of the world were on a “civilizing mission” to lift up the inferior races of the world from their obscurantist primitivism. Resistance was met with genocide in the Americas. Samuel J. Morton (1799-1851), American and Scottish educated physician and natural scientist, may well be the father of “scientific racism.” He founded the discipline of ethnography and advanced the theory of phrenology. According to Morton, size of brain mattered, whites possessing the largest cranium; blacks the smallest (or vice-versa if evidence contested). The abuses of the pseudo-science of “craniometry” was historically researched by paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould in The Mismeasure of Man, just as the theory resurfaced in The Bell Curve, a racist apology for the Reagan administration’s attacks on the welfare state by blaming black poverty on poverty of black intellect.
In keeping with the politicized science of the day, the first American census (1790) categorized people by race, but the categories have changed twenty-four times since then. Today, the US Census defines race as a social construct and provides a dazzling array of choices and permutations, making the category practically null. You can be an African American of European descent with a Hawaian component and a Native American culture. Scientifically, of course race does not exist. Genes cannot identify race. The human Genome Project has proven that biologically we are a single human race (“species” would be more accurate). Go tell it on the mountain because pernicious elements in American society continue to use race as though there is more than one.
The truth is that racism is a powerful tool of social control and an arm of US expansionist propaganda. Racism is political. Superficially reforming existing institutions cannot eradicate it. It must be made clear who the promoters of racism are and for what purpose they promote it. Racism is the legacy of colonialism and slavery, but this does not explain why it persists so fundamentally in American institutions today. Unless one is prepared to call the US imperialist. Imperialism impoverishes people abroad by stealing their resources, under developing their industries, destroying their labor unions, their laws for environmental protection, and flooding their markets with goods they once made themselves. It impoverishes people at home. The wars for expansion cost, and the people pay.
Look at the US: has it not been third- worldized? Is it not, therefore, likely that at a certain point the people will rise up, go on strike, boycott, sabotage, interfere with profits? Very likely. But not if they are racially divided and racially afraid. Enter racism—the imperialist’s trump card. Let’s have two, three Fergusons. Let white racists hit and run. Let non-racists beat their breasts. Let the police put on a horror show. Let black separatism rise; they can be picked off like the Black Panthers were. Let’s have separatism by all means: white non-racists fighting racism on white turf; blacks on black turf. Separate but equal, ha-ha. Let there be race war so the class war can go on.
But we have an alternative: class solidarity in resistance.
Luciana Bohne is co-founder of Film Criticism, a journal of cinema studies, and teaches at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org